This November was my second attempt at National Novel Writing Month. The gist is to write 50,000 words in November. I tried it last year and wrote about 23,000 words (~500 words = 1 page), which felt like an accomplishment. And it was. Then I let that writing sit fallow for the whole year while life preoccupied me in other ways. This year I decided to try it again, for three main reasons:
- I wish I wrote more than I do, and this is a discrete, external motivational structure in which to do so.
- I’ve been kicking around for years a website or program idea to help people like me write novels. Fully participating in NaNoWriMo seemed like good research.
- I think about discipline and focus a lot, and what those mean in our overstimulated digital age. It seemed impossible to write 50,000 words in a month without learning something about those two things.
My plan of attack involved waking up at 6:15 and writing for 60-90 minutes before work, and then some longer writing sessions on weekends. I arrived on Saturday, November 30th having written about 39,000 words. So I sat down at 10 AM and, with some breaks for food and a shower, stared at my laptop screen for ten hours. At a little after 8 PM, shortly before friends were due over to play board games, I checked my word count for the 800th time that day and saw it read 50,124. I felt like a literary John Henry, although instead of dying I just got a little drunk, a little loopy, and lost badly at 7 Wonders and The Great Dalmuti.
What follows are some reflections on how this month went for me. I’m writing with half an eye towards an audience, but unlike most of what is on this blog, this is not an entirely outward-facing piece of writing. Forewarned. That said, I think my experience is valuable to anyone who aspires to write, who is curious about NaNoWriMo, or who is interested (as I am) in peeking under the hood of others’ passions and projects.
One – Discipline and the enervation of day jobs
I typically maintain a reticent attitude about my writing. I will express to friends and acquaintances a generalized interest in creative writing, but aside from what I’ve written for The Onion and other websites, I don’t go out of my way to talk about it. Which upon reflection seems strange, considering that I am a firm believer in the principle that telling someone you will do something makes you far more likely to do it.
This November I did not share my progress on Facebook (mostly because of my feelings about Facebook). But what I did do was tell my friends that I was getting up before work to write. And I was surprised at how much that seemed to impress them, more so than my saying my goal was 50,000 words, or I wrote for X hours on Saturday. And their respect in turn encouraged me to keep doing it.
I think this was the case for two reasons. First, the “artist fitting creation into the cracks around his day job” is a well-known and admirable narrative. Second, I think we (read: people like me) respond positively to displays of discipline, especially when they fly in the face of the narrative of “I work a lot and am therefore tired when I’m not at work.” The actual project is immaterial. Going to the gym before work, or visiting one’s sick grandmother before work, or even going to the grocery store before work. Each shows that we can do more if we want to and we need not give in to the indulgent weariness (typically compounded by drinking) which our day jobs propagate, a weariness that in turn gives us cover for bailing on events or projects and just going home to watch TV. (Note: some people have legit exhausting jobs. I am not one of them.)
Two – A reminder of the power of the book
I spent a good deal of time in November reading “The Gone Away World” by Nick Harkaway. I read it nearly every day, sometimes for 20 minutes, sometimes for 90. I read it because it was supremely entertaining (if not always successful in what it set out to accomplish), and because I have joined a book club and deadlines, people. The book is 500 pages, and I read it in less than 3 weeks. I haven’t read a book that fast in years, and I was utterly absorbed.
Which was fan-fucking-tastic. I had forgotten how your imagination can absorb a good novel and the seep it back out during your walking-around time, like those bulbs that slowly water your houseplants, only for your mind. I can’t believe I forgot this feeling, either. Which brought me back to the genesis of my desire to write in the first place: reading books as a child which made me want to do that too, to have done that, and to make others feel the way Jack London, Ray Bradbury, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Mark Twain made me feel.
So reading enthusiastically in parallel with NaNoWriMo was a great move. And surprise surprise, it affirms one of the near-universal bits of advice writers give to wanna-be writers: read, my chickadees! Read loud and hard. (Incidentally, I worried that I would read “The Gone Away World” for writerly tips on how to structure a novel, and not be able to enjoy it as an un-agenda’d reader. Turns out I could do both.)
Three – Inspirational quotes from basketball players
Two quotes that frequently came to mind during the month. I don’t know who said them, but I’ve heard them attributed to very tall basketball players:
- “Being a professional means doing what you love to do even on the days you don’t feel like doing it.” ~Patrick Ewing(?!?!)
- “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” ~Kevin Durant (and a thousand other people, I’m sure)
Four – Discovering all that writerly advise on my own
I seek out authors whom I admire talking about their craft and process. I want role models and schematics for this mysterious and lonesome art. As I moved through November, I was surprised by how many pieces of their advice I discovered on my own:
- Thinking about when to write diminishes your writing. I discovered that planning and sticking to a schedule for when I would write left more mental energy for the writing. Spending lots of time thinking about how or when I’ll fit in my writing feels like writing, but isn’t. And it takes mental bandwidth that could be spent writing.
- Find the time of day that works for you and write then. I discovered that writing in the morning, after breakfast and with a cup of coffee, was my best time. At the end of the day, too much flotsam had piled up in my brain. Learning this feels like I now know something important about myself I didn’t know in October.
- Writing is infinitely easier if you make it a habit. It’s like running – it takes weeks to get into shape, and days to fall out of shape. But running while in shape is way more pleasant than running while out of shape.
- One of the joys of writing is discovering things you did not plan. Countless times doing improv comedy, I’ve discovered something in a scene neither I nor my scene partner planned or foresaw. “Oh, you’re my dog AND my doctor!?!? *blackout*” But that had never happened to me in writing until this month, when a relationship between two characters, and a big plot point, and some other details just came out unexpectedly as I wrote. I believe that happened because I was writing often enough for my brain to become accustomed to thinking in that way, which allowed for these discoveries. It was one of the highlights of the month.
- Thinking like a writer out in the world is a thing. And it doesn’t mean wearing jackets with elbow patches or attending FanFicCon. Spending so much time in that headspace, I discovered that I was framing experiences in terms of their application to writing. Moments I encountered in life began to pop with narrative potential. The only other time my brain has worked this way was when I first started writing for The Onion, and I tried to condense everything I experienced into a pithy headline. “You’re waiting for an elevator. How is this funny? This is funny. Elevators are funny. Maybe…Area Man Thinks Elevator Is Lazy. No. Area Man Suspects Elevator Hates Him. Perfect!” That was an exhausting time – this was far more enjoyable.
Five – The power of company
The person I talk with about writing more than anyone is my friend Kat. We became friends over our mutual interest in creative writing, and I learned about NaNoWriMo last year from her. She was a source of motivation this month, and I owe her my gratitude.
Like any cult member worth his tinfoil fedora, I in turn tried to get my friends involved. Four of my friends signed up on the NaNoWriMo website, but only one really went for it. However, he really went for it. Tim is one of the few friends from high school with whom I’m still in good contact. (Despite not living anywhere near each other, we have drifted on similar winds during our formative twenties, such that we still have much in common and friendship comes easily. It’s pretty cool.) He’s also not above some good-natured competition, and seeing his word count rise like lava on my heels kept me going. He finished several hours before I did on that final Saturday, and the way our digital correspondence shifted in the last few days from “Fuck you and your impressive word count” to “C’mon buddy, power through” was both reflexive and terrific.
There’s nothing that a little good-natured smack talk won’t improve.
Lastly, the most resonant lesson from this month is the grave knowledge that I can do this, because I did it. And now there’s no going back to life pre-lesson-learned. I can write 25 pages in a day. So why can’t I write I write 200 in three months? “You’ve always wanted to write a novel, and now you have proof you can do it.” *Cue Inception noise* I have the discipline to do something hard, if I want to do it and put myself in a position to succeed (and I have the discipline to put myself in a position to succeed. Look – recursive self-discipline!).